World’s Best Preview: Inside the 49ers

Bill Huber

PRESSURE-PACKED DEFENSE: If the Green Bay Packers are going to slay the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday and take pole position in the jam-packed NFC playoff race, it will be up to Aaron Rodgers to solve one of the NFL’s elite pass defenses.

San Francisco has dominated the airwaves this season. The 49ers rank:

First in passing yards per game (142.5).

Second in passing yards per dropback (4.86).

Second in opponent passer rating (72.3).

First in sack percentage (13.3).

Third in interception percentage (3.75).

The 49ers under coordinator Robert Saleh have the dream formula. They have piled up a league-leading 39 sacks without having to blitz. Behind defensive linemen Arik Armstead (8.0), Nick Bosa (7.0), Dee Ford (6.5) and DeForest Buckner (5.0), the 49ers are the only team in the NFL with four players with five-plus sacks.

The additions of Bosa (the second pick in the draft) and Ford (a free-agent addition from Kansas City) have changed the face of the defense. Last season, San Francisco set a dubious league record with just two interceptions. That team finished 28th in the league with 27.2 points allowed per game. This team, which ranks fourth with 11 interceptions, is second with 15.5 points allowed per game.

“It’s definitely the pass rush,” Rodgers said of the difference between this 49ers team and the one he beat at Lambeau Field 33-30 last season. “You expect the efficiency of the defense and the turnovers to go up and obviously they have.”

When the Packers lost to the Chargers a few weeks ago, Los Angeles won with a similar formula that the 49ers have used all season. They rushed four, dropped seven into coverage and gave Rodgers nowhere to throw the ball. In 39 dropbacks, the Chargers blitzed only once. With the offense sputtering, Rodgers lost patience and went 0-for-5 on passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield.

Video: Rodgers on patience

That plan worked for the Chargers in Week 9 and it’s worked for the 49ers for most of the season. Remarkably, they’ve allowed only 10 passing plays of 25-plus yards this season – second-fewest in the league. Green Bay’s offense, on the other hand, is tied for third with 27 completions of 25-plus yards. Rodgers has completed 22 passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield, tied for fourth-most, and has a 121.5 passer rating on those deep passes, third-best in the league.

“Just a really solid defense,” Rodgers said. “They’re obviously very stout up front. They’ve had a number of sacks, which is obviously helping not only their overall yardage but the back end, as well, because the back end knows the ball’s got to come out at a certain time. There’s not any holes on this defense. It’s solid from the front seven to the back end. They’re playing really well together. It’s going to be a really good test for us.”

To be sure, the 49ers’ superb pass defense has been beefed up on a buffet of mediocre quarterbacks. The one legit passer they’ve faced was Seattle’s Russell Wilson two weeks ago. The Seahawks won the game but the Niners held Wilson to an 86.9 passer rating and sacked him five times.

Saleh called Rodgers a “Hall of Fame quarterback (who) doesn’t panic under pressure.” While that’s true, if his prolific defensive front can get after Rodgers, the advantage on Sunday – and in the NFC playoff race – will clearly tilt in the Niners’ direction.

“Anytime you’ve got seven guys in the back end just looking at the guy with the football and four guys relentlessly rushing him where they make him uncomfortable making the decisions that he doesn’t want to make, he makes them faster than he wants to make them,” Saleh told reporters. “Anytime you’ve got the combination, I feel like that’s where you get as many turnovers as you could possibly get. They come in bunches, as they say.”

THE SHERMANATOR: Richard Sherman is 31 years old – rather old for an NFL cornerback. Late in the 2017 season, during his final season with Seattle, he suffered a torn Achilles. That’s an injury that spelled the death knell for many athletes.

Despite age and serious injury, the four-time All-Pro remains on top his game. A nemesis of Aaron Rodgers in previous Packers-Seahawks matchups, Sherman will be front and center in Sunday’s showdown.

The numbers from Pro Football Focus show Sherman remains an elite defender. This season, 72 corners have played at least 50 percent of his team’s coverage snaps. With one touchdown allowed but three interceptions, Sherman has allowed a league-best 43.2 passer rating. Sherman also is No. 1 with 0.58 yards allowed per coverage snap. He’s ninth with 15.3 coverage snaps per reception but his 21 allowed completions have gained merely 185 yards. He’s a big reason why the 49ers’ pass defense has been superb, in general, but especially good against No. 1 receivers.

Sherman has a team-high three interceptions this season. That’s more than the entire team had last year. Among active defenders, Sherman’s 35 interceptions are nine more than anyone else.

No team plays more zone coverage than the 49ers. With his size (6-foot-3) and experience, few corners are better in zone than Sherman.

“He’s a savvy player. He’s a smart, instinctive, really sound player,” Rodgers said. “You have to feel really good about routes to his side. I don’t think that’s really ever changed with him. He has that ability to lull you to sleep sometimes and still jumps on the ball, has fantastic ball skills. He’s a great player. I have nothing but respect for his career and what he’s accomplished.”

BY, GEORGE, HE’S THE BEST TIGHT END: San Francisco tight end George Kittle, who missed the last two games with knee and ankle injuries, will be a game-time decision, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. His status for Sunday night will go a long way toward deciding the outcome.

“You could argue he’s the best one in the game right now,” LaFleur said.

With the retirement of Rob Gronkowski, that’s probably true. Kittle is the total package. He can block, he can catch, he can run and he’s a bully with the ball in his hands. All Kittle did last year was set an NFL record for most receiving yards ever for a tight end with 1,377. Of that total, 870 yards came after the catch. That’s the most for any player, regardless of position, since 2010, according to Radar360 via the 49ers’ game preview.

Green Bay, of course, has performed miserably against tight ends for a large chunk of this season. It’s allowed the seventh-most receptions (57), sixth-most yards (634) and fifth-most touchdowns (five). In the final game before the bye, Carolina’s Greg Olsen caught eight passes for 98 yards. The week before that, the Chargers’ Hunter Henry caught seven passes for 84 yards. The week before that, the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce caught four passes for 63 yards and one touchdown. And the week before that, Darren Waller led a Raiders contingent that caught 11 passes for 172 yards and three touchdowns.

The run-after-catch ability of Kittle, specifically, and the 49ers, in general, could be problematic for the Packers. According to STATS, the 49ers are sixth in the league with 1,394 yards after the catch. According to league data, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is second with 6.28 yards after the catch per completion. In other words, the Niners depend on their pass catchers to do the, well, legwork in the passing game. Meanwhile, according to Pro Football Focus, Green Bay is No. 22 in missed tackles (82) and No. 25 in yards allowed after the catch (1,286 yards).

“He’s in the conversation (as) certainly one of the best – if not the best – tight end in football,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “He’s a more-than-adequate, more-than-willing blocker. And this is a guy who has borderline wide receiver-type speed. He’s got great ball skills, difficult to tackle, he breaks a lot of tackles. He’s violent after the catch. He’s got a good relationship with the quarterback and, on top of that, a coordinator – a guy putting the offense together – that can get him open. It’s as big a tight end challenge as we’ll have. That’s something that’s been well-documented, we need to be better.”

JIMMY G., TURNOVER MACHINE: In some ways, Garoppolo has played about as well as his two-time MVP counterpart, Rodgers. Garoppolo is sixth with a 68.8 percent completion rate; Rodgers is 14th at 64.8 percent. Garoppolo is 10th with 7.82 yards per attempt; Rodgers is ninth with 7.83. Garoppolo has thrown 18 touchdowns to Rodgers’ 17 despite throwing 30 fewer passes. Thus, Garoppolo is eighth with a touchdown rate of 5.7 percent and Rodgers is 12th at 4.9 percent.

However, the big difference is turnovers. Rodgers, who owns the best interception in NFL history, he’s thrown only two this season for a league-leading interception rate of 0.6 percent. Garoppolo has tossed 10 – only three have thrown more picks – and his interception rate of 3.2 percent ranks 26th. Throw in seven fumbles (four lost) and Garoppolo has 14 turnovers. Rodgers has fumbled twice (both lost) for four turnovers. That’s a difference of 10 giveaways.

Shanahan pinned some of those mistakes on inexperience. After starting two games for New England in 2016, the Niners acquired Garoppolo via a trade in 2017. He started the final five games of that season and three games last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Thus, he entered this season with 10 starts over three seasons.

“I think Jimmy has done some really good things this year,” Shanahan said. “This has been the first year that he’s been able to play at least half a season. Going into this year, he had played less than C.J. (Beathard) and (Nick) Mullens both had, and he had less career starts than (Cleveland’s) Baker Mayfield did in his rookie year. So, he hasn’t played a ton of football. Coming off an ACL, I knew there would be some ups and downs this year.”

What Garoppolo has done is won. He’s 17-3 as the starter. Only Dan Marino (18-2) and Ben Roethlisberger (18-2) won more games in their first 20 game as a starter in the Super Bowl era. This will be a bigger challenge for him, though. San Francisco’s nine wins have come against teams with a .337 winning percentage and their overall strength of schedule is .382. Only Buffalo has faced an easier overall schedule.

That perhaps means Garoppolo will have to elevate his game in this critical showdown.

“I think he’s gotten into it better and faster than expected,” Shanahan said. “I know he’d like to eliminate a number of those picks, which, as always, not all are his fault. Definitely, we’ve had too many of them, but what I like about Jimmy is he makes a lot of plays, too, and he keeps coming. He’s not scared to turn it over, because he’s not scared to make the big play. But also, the more he plays, the better looks we can give him. We’ve definitely got to cut down on those turnovers.”